The Times: China’s anti-pollution drive ‘just a decoy’

China Labour Bulletin is quoted in the following article. Copyright remains with the original publisher

Leo Lewis Tangshan
December 14 2013

The furnaces of the Xingye steel mill, in the northeastern city of Tangshan, are silent. A lone worker trawls the perimeter for anything of value. Two lorryloads of road grit have been dumped across the front entrance, in a stony statement of closure.

For Beijing, braced for a hard winter of suffocating air pollution and carcinogenic smog, the silence of Xingye is a victory: a notorious polluter has finally been put out of action.

However, a tour of the city after dark suggests that victory may, for now, be cosmetic. As one well-placed industry source put it: “Xingye is a Potemkin closure — a decoy to convince the outside world that the Government is on top of things”.

The world will have to accept that Beijing’s environmental clean up is not going to happen quickly, he said. If it does, it will result in the lay-offs of a million muscular, unemployed and very angry steelworkers.

According to state-owned media, the shutdown last month of Xingye was “the first gunshot” in an all-out war on air pollution and massive over-capacity in the Chinese steel sector.

Other heavy industries must surely follow, say economists — setting the stage for a tense political dilemma as the Communist Party guides the country out of its high-growth, high-pollution phase.

For nearly a decade, China has fretted about the huge over-capacity in its steel sector, the minuscule profits, the feeble regulation of emissions and the roaring inefficiencies that are tolerated to avoid laying-off hundreds of thousands of workers. However, very little has happened.

Now, under President Xi Jinping, the anti-pollution drive offers a good political pretext for otherwise unpalatable closures.

The province of Hebei, which surrounds Beijing, is the primary producer of the toxic air pollution that descends for weeks at a time on the capital.

Nearly half the steel in the world comes from China, and about a quarter of that is produced within a few hundred miles of Beijing.

Workers in Tangshan report that reduced power allowances and other temporary measures have, indeed, caused some production to fall.

Tang Chengwei, emerging from the smoke-billowing, clearly active Tangshan Xinbaotai mill, said that a number of small local furnaces had been shut down recently, and even the larger ones had been suspended as the plants are supposedly re-tooled to meet environmental protection standards. Two of the four furnaces at the factory where he works have been closed since April, as desulphurisation equipment is installed. “Since Xi Jinping stepped in, pollution issues have been emphasised much more. Some mills are being closed, no matter how strong their background or political connections,” he said.

However, behind the optimism, there are doubts that anything will happen quickly.
In Tangshan, where the air burns and trees are caked in yellow soot, 40 million tonnes of steel capacity is supposed to be cut over the next five years, and 60 million tonnes across the whole of Hebei province. As a result, 400,000 people in Tangshan (population 7.6 million) must “find other jobs”.

On the same day that Xingye was supposedly closed, 25 other furnaces and plants were also reportedly shut. In fact, say workers, Xingye had been out of operation for several months and the others were primed for closure anyway.

Under the cloak of darkness, said one steel industry executive, Tangshanpollutes as it pleases. Environmental inspectors do not work at night, the electricity is cheaper and it is harder to make out the grimy smoke funneling poisons into the skies.

At best, said Geoffrey Crothall, of China Labour Bulletin, the restructuring of the steel industry is a process that will take many, many years. The Government, he added, cannot talk expansively about huge production cuts without first working out what happens to hundreds of thousands of workers.

Beijing has seen steelworkers protest en masse in the past. It will not be eager for a repeat, however much it wants good air.

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